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Making a case for Pat Kelsey that doesn’t involve his roots at Xavier

Everybody loves a low-major coach with two trips to the tournament on his resume. Let’s figure out why that works in the Big East.

NCAA Basketball: Winthrop at Duke
Seen here demonstrating that he gives good hugs.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, we get it: you guys have an eye for first-year Charleston coach Pat Kelsey. In the all-time KenPom program rankings, Charleston lands at 133rd. For context, Winthrop is 190th and Xavier is 29th. Toledo, La Salle, and Miami (OH) are all down in the same neighborhood as Charleston. Still, people are asking, so let’s see what we’ve got.

He plays fun basketball

I mean, he coaches it, but you get what I’m saying. Over his last seven seasons, the fewest possessions per game his teams have averaged is 71.1, 47th in the country. Four of those seven have been in the top 20, and his Charleston team was 2nd in the country this year. A lot of coaches say they’re going to play fast; Kelsey backs it up.

They also generally chuck a bunch of threes, though they haven’t been particularly good at them. His defenses haven’t been good at all, and he hasn’t placed an offense in the top 100 at all. The best he has ever done in the KenPom is 101st. That team earned a 12 seed and spent exactly one possession with a win probability of over 25% in losing to Villanova in the first round.

The jury is, at best, out on whether or not he coaches effective basketball. There’s no doubt it’s fun to watch though. For what it’s worth, Big East teams that have played in the top 30 in the country in tempo since Xavier joined the league are 47-70 and have 0 bids in the NCAA tournament or even the NIT. Still, fun!

His players develop

He recruited unranked 5’7” PG Keon Johnson out of Mansfield in his first class. Johnson went on the average 16.2 PPG in 128 career games, including 22.3 on 40% from behind the arc as a senior. Xavier Cooks averaged 7.8 and 6.1 as a freshman and grew to 17.2 and 8.8 as a senior. Bjorn Broman averaged 6 PPG and shot 32% from three as a freshman; his last two years, he shot 38.8% from behind the arc, averaged 62 makes a year, and averaged 10.5 PPG. He plucked Adonis Arms, Hunter Hale, and Chandler Vaudrin from the D2 level and made them stars at Winthrop. That’s not a comprehensive list, but I think it gives you an idea. He got good players for that level on campus and they grew into legitimate stars and reliable role players.

In all, 16 Winthrop players were selected all-conference. He also had three named Big South Player of the Year, one Big South Freshman of the Year and two Big South Tournament Most Valuable Player.

As an assistant, he coached future NBA stars Chris Paul and Jeff Teague and future NBA players Ish Smith, James Johnson, and Al-Faruq Aminu.

He has won a lot

After finishing 5th in his first season as a head coach, he never finished worse than 3rd in the 11-team Big South. He won at least a share of the regular season league title 4 times in 11 seasons at Winthrop and won the conference tournament 3 times. On the whole, he is 203-110 as a head coach and 118-56 in conference games. If you take out his first seasons at the programs he took over, those numbers move to 172-78 and 104-36. Once he gets rolling, wins have followed.

He’s young for a head coach

According to Wikipedia, Pat Kelsey is 46 years old.

He connects with the community and the players

This one is a little more subjective, but we’ve already run out of empirical evidence to cite. Everyone who has had contact with Kelsey cites his energy and enthusiasm as reasons for his success. Rock Hill, South Carolina - the city in which Winthrop plays - loved Kelsey and his community involvement. His players loved him and loved playing for him. It’s hard to find someone outside of maybe everyone involved with the UMass basketball program who has a bad thing to say about him.

Just days after the Sandy Hook shooting, he made an impassioned speech imploring anyone and everyone to step up and force change in society. He drew national attention for his position, and the parents of a victim of the shooting reached out to make contact with him. He has twice been a finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year award, though he’s yet to break through and cut down that metaphorical net.

That’s all amazing; why isn’t Xavier backing up the Brinks truck for this guy!?

There are a couple of minor red flags if you squint for them. One is that Kelsey has never coached above the low-major level despite having over a decade of his work on tape. He got one mid-major offer that almost worked out, and that was at UMass. More on that in a second.

He’s 8-35 in KenPom tier A/B games, which is a possible problem if you want him to win at the high-major level. Obviously he would have better talent on the roster in the Big East, but assuming that would lead to great results is making an extrapolation that the data does not immediately support.

He left the staff at a high-major school that was previously employing him and appearing to be grooming him for the head seat for undisclosed personal reasons. College basketball is a huge commitment for a man trying to raise a young family; this is information to have more than it’s something that throws up a red flag. What is perhaps more pertinent is that he committed to take the UMass job, let that marinate for two days, then backed out 25 minutes before the press conference scheduled to announce his hiring. The contract had included a memorandum of understanding that required Kelsey to pay UMass $1 million if he left before two years had passed. Clearly, he came in under that mark by a fair margin.

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On the whole, I don’t think a blind resume with Kelsey’s name not attached to it would get Xavier fans excited. Like the Steele hire, this seems like it would be a move based on a coach’s connection to the school and the optimism of the fan base regarding him more than one based on an actual reasonable conclusion that the person involved has earned a shot at the head coaching position at a Big East school. I think the hire would be a massive reach for Xavier; I certainly don’t think it would have merited “mutually agreeing to part ways” with Travis Steele with games still on the schedule.

Despite that, if Pat Kelsey does end up as Xavier’s head coach, we’ll be all the way behind him. Regardless of whether or not it’s how we would have chosen to run the program, we’ll still be pulling for it to work out. If X hires Kelsey, there’s nothing that would make me happier than to be proven wrong about him. Either way, will I get worked up about it? In the words of (possible future Xavier coach?) Shaheen Holloway, “For what? It’s basketball.”